For, say they, when cruising in an empty ship, if you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it, at least.—Herman Melville, 1851
At noon Lieutenant Claude Wheeler found himself in a street of little shops, hot and perspiring, utterly confused and turned about. Truck drivers and boys on bell-less bicycles shouted at him indignantly, furiously. He got under the shade of a young plane tree and stood close to the trunk, as if it might protect him. His greatest care, at any rate, was off his hands. With the help of Victor Morse, he had hired a taxi for forty francs, taken Lieutenant Fanning to the base hospital, and seen him into the arms of a big orderly from Texas. He came away from the hospital with no idea where he was going—except that he wanted to get to the heart of the city. It seemed, however, to have no heart; only long, stony arteries, full of heat and noise. He was still standing there, under his plane tree, when a group of uncertain, lost-looking brown figures, headed by Sergeant Hicks, came weaving up the street: nine men in nine different attitudes of dejection, each with a long loaf of bread under his arm. They hailed Claude with joy, straightened up, and looked as if now they had found their way! He saw that he must be a plane tree for somebody else.
Sergeant Hicks explained that they had been trudging about the town, looking for cheese. After sixteen days of heavy, tasteless food, cheese was what they all wanted. There was a grocery store up the street, where there seemed to be everything else. He had tried to make the old woman understand by signs.
“Don’t these French people eat cheese, anyhow? What’s their word for it, Lieutenant? I’m damned if I know, and I’ve lost my phrase book. Suppose you could make her understand?”
“Well, I’ll try. Come along, boys.”
Crowding close together, the ten men entered the shop. The proprietress ran forward with an exclamation of despair. Evidently she had thought she was done with them, and was not pleased to see them coming back. When she paused to take a breath, Claude took off his hat respectfully and performed the bravest act of his life: uttered the first phrase-book sentence he had ever spoken to a French person. His men were at his back; he had to say something or run, there was no other course. Looking the old woman in the eye, he steadily articulated, “Avez-vous du fromage, madame?” It was almost inspiration to add the last word, he thought, and when it worked, he was as much startled as if his revolver had gone off in his belt.
“Du fromage?” the shop woman screamed. Calling something to her daughter who was at the desk, she caught Claude by the sleeve, pulled him out of the shop, and ran down the street with him. She dragged him into a doorway darkened by a long curtain, greeted the proprietress, and then pushed the men after their officer, as if they were stubborn burros.
They stood blinking in the gloom, inhaling a sour, damp, buttery, smearcase smell, until their eyes penetrated the shadows and they saw that there was nothing but cheese and butter in the place. The shopkeeper was a fat woman with black eyebrows that met above her nose; her sleeves were rolled up, her cotton dress was open over her white throat and bosom. She began at once to tell them that there was a restriction on milk products; everyone must have cards; she could not sell them so much. But soon there was nothing left to dispute about. The boys fell upon her stock like wolves. The little white cheeses that lay on green leaves disappeared into big mouths. Before she could save it, Hicks had split a big round cheese through the middle and was carving it up like a melon. She told them they were dirty pigs and worse than the Boches, but she could not stop them.
“What’s the matter with Mother, Lieutenant? What’s she fussing about? Ain’t she here to sell goods?”
Claude tried to look wiser than he was. “From what I can make out, there’s some sort of restriction; you aren’t allowed to buy all you want. We ought to have thought about that; this is a war country. I guess we’ve about cleaned her out.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Hicks wiping his clasp knife. “We’ll bring her some sugar tomorrow. One of the fellows who helped us unload at the docks told me you can always quiet ’em if you give ’em sugar.”
They surrounded her and held out their money for her to take her pay. “Come on, ma’am, don’t be bashful. What’s the matter, ain’t this good money?”
She was distracted by the noise they made, by their bronzed faces with white teeth and pale eyes, crowding so close to her. Ten large, well-shaped hands with straight fingers, the open palms full of crumpled notes…Holding the men off under the pretense of looking for a pencil, she made rapid calculations. The money that lay in their palms had no relation to these big, coaxing, boisterous fellows; it was a joke to them; they didn’t know what it meant in the world. Behind them were shiploads of money, and behind the ships…
The situation was unfair. Whether she took much or little out of their hands couldn’t possibly matter to the Americans—couldn’t even dash their good humor. But there was a strain on the cheesewoman, and the standards of a lifetime were in jeopardy. Her mind mechanically fixed upon two and a half; she would charge them two-and-a-half times the market price of the cheese. With this moral plank to cling to, she made change with conscientious accuracy and did not keep a penny too much from anybody. Telling them what big stupids they were, and that it was necessary to learn to count in this world, she urged them out of her shop. She liked them well enough, but she did not like to do business with them. If she didn’t take their money, the next one would. All the same, fictitious values were distasteful to her and made everything seem flimsy and unsafe.
Standing in her doorway, she watched the brown band go ambling down the street; as they passed in front of the old church of St. Jacques, the two foremost stumbled on a sunken step that was scarcely above the level of the pavement. She laughed aloud. They looked back and waved to her. She replied with a smile that was both friendly and angry. She liked them but not the legend of waste and prodigality that ran before them—and followed after. It was superfluous and disintegrating in a world of hard facts. An army in which the men had meat for breakfast and ate more every day than the French soldiers at the front got in a week! Their moving kitchens and supply trains were the wonder of France. Down below Arles, where her husband’s sister had married, on the desolate plain of the Crau, their tinned provisions were piled like mountain ranges, under sheds and canvas. Nobody had ever seen so much food before: coffee, milk, sugar, bacon, hams—everything the world was famished for. They brought shiploads of useless things, too. And useless people. Shiploads of women who were not nurses; some said they came to dance with the officers, so they would not be ennuyés.
All this was not war—any more than having money thrust at you by grown men who could not count was business. It was an invasion, like the other. The first destroyed material possessions, and this threatened everybody’s integrity. Distaste of such methods, deep, recoiling distrust of them, clouded the cheesewoman’s brow as she threw her money into the drawer and turned the key on it.
From One of Ours. Born in northern Virginia in 1873, Cather at the age of nine moved with her family to Nebraska, where she lived among immigrants settling the Great Plains. She graduated from the state’s university in 1895 and moved to Pittsburgh, working as a journalist. She served as the managing editor of McClure’s from 1905 to 1912 before turning her attention to writing novels. Published in 1922, One of Ours won a Pulitzer Prize.